The Gospel for the Churched and Unchurched
One of the joys and challenges of traveling is the different perspective it gives you on your own setting. Time in Uganda has made me realize the extraordinary wealth we enjoy in the West and, with it, our wastefulness. Time in Egypt has helped me see the West’s radical individualism and also the religious freedoms we enjoy. Time in India has shown me that happiness isn’t a function of material wealth and made me more thankful for advances in social equality.
Recently I flew from London to visit Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church (OMPC) in Birmingham, Alabama, to speak at their missions conference. Much has been written about increasing secularisation in the UK. Consequently to come to the second most bible-minded city in the US (according to the Barna research group) gives me plenty to reflect on.
Here are some thoughts and takeaways for gospel ministry.
1. Don’t believe the hype.
Just as ‘increased secularisation’ is a far too simplistic an analysis of the UK, so stereotypes of ‘ministry is easy in the Bible-belt’ are also wrong. Church attendance may have declined in the UK but sociologists of religion like Prof. Grace Davie and Prof. David Voas argue for a more nuanced understanding: believing (in religious/spiritual ideas) is higher than belonging (to churches), and despite appearances there is still a ‘fuzzy fidelity’ to religion in the UK and Europe.
Similarly whilst the Barna group argue that church attendance in the US may be stable (or even slightly growing), the reasons for attendance are shifting from personal belief to seeing the church as social utility.
Having an accurate picture of the context in which you minister is vital. The press may trot out headlines like ‘increasing secularisation’ or ‘growing church attendance,’ but to have informed prayers and focused ministry expressions we need to look beyond the hype to the more nuanced reality.
2. Healthy churches are missional churches.
A church’s concern for mission both reveals its health and fosters its health. OMPC is a large, well resourced church, but what has really struck me is their passion for mission. Whether overseas or over the garden fence, they are intentionally missional: planting churches, sending missionaries, encouraging evangelism, praying and giving. All this whilst being realistic and targeted about where their culture is at. Little surprise, then, that their church is growing.
Whether overseas or over the garden fence, they are intentionally missional. Little surprise, then, that their church is growing.
In the UK one of the key mistakes that led to the rise of Liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century was that churches which had been missionally focused in the 19th century took their eye off the ball. If you stop reaching out with the gospel, then you risk losing the gospel. For us doing a church plant in London, we have necessarily had a focus on mission. For five years it has felt like grow or die! But now that we are more established, the challenge for us will be to maintain the missional zeal that has kept us spiritually healthy and vibrant so far.
3. All people are hungry for the gospel (whether they know it or not).
People in the Bible-belt have a high level of bible literacy. They know the concepts of scripture and are in a culture where Christian norms are largely expressed and expected. But, of course, this does not save them. Morality can’t save anyone. Those I chatted with at OMPC have shared with me how their friends who aren’t believers often reject a perceived Christian self-righteousness. But when they hear of the grace of Jesus Christ, who came not for the healthy but for the sick, they find it compelling and attractive.
In London it is different and yet the same. Many people I talk to are not consciously rejecting Christianity, they just don’t really know much about Christianity! But whether they see themselves to be moral failures (like many who live on my estate) or whether they are cultural achievers (like many who work in the city) they find grace surprising and beckoning. A message that says both to those who feel they have failed as well as to those who feel they are succeeding, ‘You cannot save yourself, your sin is so serious that Jesus had to die for you but you are so loved that he was prepared to die for you’ is universally challenging and attractive. It awakens a latent hunger in all of us to be forgiven, loved and accepted, even if our pride means that many try to satisfy this hunger in distorted ways.
Putting these three together provides three important legs to gospel fruitfulness; a realistic assessment of cultural context, a persistent focus on mission, and a deep-rooted confidence in the enduring message of God’s grace.
About the Author
Pete Nicholas is a senior pastor at Inspire London church, which is part of the Redeemer City to City network. He is on the City to City UK executive team. Previously he worked for Christians in Sport, and before that as a management consultant in the technology industry. He has also written Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital World.